28 November 2010

Talk About the Passion

The agent rejections I've gotten for my unpublished novel EULOGY (the submissions that made it past the junior-assistant slush pile readers and received non-form responses from agents who actually bothered to comment) all seem to have some form of this statement: "I'm just not passionate enough about it." What does that even mean?

I can think of three ways to speak about passion. We can speak about the Passion of the Christ, something Mel Gibson and the German villagers at Oberammergau have famously attempted to do, a notion that entails passive suffering and willing death. We can speak of passions as including such things as bodice-ripping sex and breast-heaving emotion and even fandom of various stripes, among others, a notion that encompasses strong, transitory feelings. Or we can speak of, say, one's life work or interests or enthusiasms—such as 'she has a passion for science' or 'accounting is his passion' or 'his passion for model railroading kept him active late into his dotage.'

My feeling is that these literary gatekeepers mean something closer to the second of these three senses. A recent post by BlckDgRd points to Michiko Kakutani's top 10 reads of 2011 which, in a way, confirms this intuition. Ms. Kakutani's blurbage for the books she has chosen contains the following tells: "Mr. Richards has magically translated the fierce emotion of his guitar playing to the page;" "Saul Bellow was a gifted and emotionally voluble letter writer...a seeker and searcher, vacillating between the emotional poles of exuberance and depression;" "This super-sad, super-funny novel...write movingly about love and heartbreak;" "The author’s most deeply felt novel yet;" "tough guy known for his tender love songs...who turned his own heartache over Ava Gardner into classic torch songs;" "Mr. Roubini’s pessimistic forecasts once earned him the sobriquet Dr. Doom;" "an illuminating book that is as provocative as it is impassioned." The writers, she senses, are passionate beings, and their writing bodies forth their emotions. Somehow.

I've written previously about Kakutani's disdain for modernism and her affection for Romanticism with respect to Tom McCarthy's C and shown her affinity in this regard with the average sort of reviewer on Amazon.com. These readers want to feel something when they read novels, and they want to know that the writers they read have the sort of passion that will allow them to feel sympathy. Writers can signal this by the type of prose (flowery, purple, figurative, poetic) they use and the extent to which they document the 'inner lives' of their characters.

Regular readers will understand my allergy to affective language—as a tool for political and/or emotional manipulation of crowds. If not, click the term "Enthymemes" in the Labels column on the right.

One of my ongoing series here, Fear of Metaphor, is an ongoing attempt to take a look at, inter alia, philosophical aspects of rhetoric as a form of emotive or affective language perhaps as a way of training myself to understand the tastes, nay the demands, of the readers on that broad continuum that includes Kakutani, the literary agents my manuscript keeps bumping into, and Amazon.com reviewers.

24 November 2010


Being that Gabriel Josipovici is who all the kool kids seem to be turning to, I thought I would as well. Doing so, I discovered this:
"In order to understand that there are good reasons for the difficulties they encountered getting their work not just published but written, and that these difficulties are part and parcel of what makes them rewarding to read, we have to try and see Modernism not from without, as Gay, Corbett, and Goldstucker and the post-Modernist[] (sic) choose to see it, but from within." (Whatever Happened to Modernism, p. 8)
Cold comfort that, seeing as I just received the following rejection by email re: my as yet unagented, unpublished novel EULOGY:
"Thanks so much for offering me the chance to consider your material. Unfortunately, your project doesn't seem right for me. Since it's crucial that you find an agent who will represent you to the best of his or her ability, I'm afraid that I'm going to have to step aside rather than ask to represent your manuscript.

You have a great imagination - I love the premise - and you're a good writer, but I'm sad to say that I just wasn't passionate enough about this to ask to see more. I wish I could offer constructive suggestions, but I thought the dialogue was fine, the characters well-crafted, and the plot well-conceived. I think it's the kind of thing that really is subjective - why some people adore the book on the top of the NYTimes bestseller list, and others don't."

The modernism in my writing offputs the sorts of people who make life-and-death decisions about texts, the gate-keepers. It does not excite their passions (sound familiar?). They don't "identify" with the characters or find them somehow sympathetic (complexity and depth notwithstanding). Imagination, conception, writing, dialogue, characters, plot. What am I missing?

Gaaaaah! Just shoot me.


For those of you not on these shores, this upcoming Thursday is the celebration of Thanksgiving here in America. For many, it's a four-day weekend filled with feasting, football, family, and friends. Despite its secular nature, it is our one truly religious holiday. Let me explain.

Reading Josipovici's analysis of the desacralization of the quotidian (what he calls, after Weber, "the disenchantment of the world") alongside Jose Saramago's Baltasar and Blimunda (a historical novel set in the early 1800's in Portugal which enacts that self-same sense of the sacred in the everyday lives of its characters), I am reminded of what I, as an avowed agnostic, actually believe is the truth of Religion (with a capital 'R'): it acknowledges and ritualizes our sense of awe at the impressive majesty of the creation, from quarkian particles to the multiverse (something about each of which can be found with relative ease on this blog), and, at the same time, it inculcates a sense of gratitude in our stony souls (a term I use advisedly).

Thanksgiving eponymously calls us to this latter. The sense of thankfulness, in its religious articulation, is the explicit acknowledgement of something beyond the self—in fact, it is the recognition of a debt to everyone and everything that has come before us and made us what we are, for good or ill, at this particular point in time and this particular place. It opens us up to the world and humbles us. At the same time, an attitude of gratitude (sorry) can awaken, prefigure, and even shape within the self an even more profound sense of empathy for each other and all of creation, the state to which all true religions aspire.

Thank someone for something this weekend; you'll feel better.

Thus endeth the lesson.

Best wishes to all for a Happy Thanksgiving!

Now, a hymn with angelic voices:WoW will be dark for the next few days over the Thanksgiving holiday.

19 November 2010

Politics, in Theory

Slavoj Žižek, in his 2007 article "Resistance Is Surrender," says "capitalism is indestructible." To resist it is to surrender to its nigh-universal co-optivity. The way to deal with capitalism is to manhandle it. The Chinese and Hugo Chavez are contemporary exemplars who are showing us the way to co-opt the mechanisms of the state for the purposes of bending the capitalist system to our purposes: an authoritarianism of the Left.

Along the way, Žižek takes the time to critique Simon Critcheley's recent book, Infinitely Demanding, and its call "to resist state power by withdrawing from its terrain and creating new spaces outside its control."

In his response, "Violent Thoughts About Slavoj Žižek," Critcheley claims he is not so soft. He discusses what he thinks are appropriate forms of anarchic violence in the struggle against the state. Revolutionaries and resisters to states—anarchists—should take to heart the biblical injunction against killing ("Thou shalt not…"), but should decide for themselves whether to obey it; it's more like a guideline (or 'plumb-line') than a rule. And a posteriori they should be prepared to take responsibility for their violent actions in abolishing the state and replacing it with some unspecified form of federalism. For Critcheley, "the activity of politics is working within the state against the state in an articulation, an inventive movement, the forging of a common front that opens a space of resistance and opposition to government and the possibility of significant political change."

For Žižek, law is an institutionalization of violence wielded exclusively by the state. Violence in response is, thus, a given. As are, by implication, the means to back-up one's use of force with sufficient violence to vanquish one's opponents, foes, and enemies. An a priori decision for non-violence in resistance to the state is surrender.

For Critcheley, the decision whether to employ violence is a subjective calculation best employed in overturning the rule of law. In place of a state-organized and -enforced capitalist economy, he argues for a "law against law." His vision of "anarchism does not requires [sic] the violence of contracts or indeed constitutions, but aims at the extra-legal resolution of conflict, [citing Walter Benjamin's ‘Critique of Violence’ here] ‘Peacefully and without contracts’, as he writes, ‘On the analogy of agreement between private persons.’" Thus: private parties pursuing their private interests kindly and respectfully, that is to say pacifically, resorting to violence only when each subjectively feels it necessary. But what sorts of private party divides does he envisage here? Regionalism? Tribalism? Racialism? Factionalism? Sectarianism? None of which either separately or in some admixture, I dare say, is a recipe for a pacific society.

If capitalism is a given, is the state necessary? Yes, says Žižek, and we should capture and control it. No, says Critcheley, there are (or ought to be) viable political alternatives. Neither response—authoritarianism or anarchism—I'm afraid, is wholly satisfactory.

Fear of Metaphor, Part 3

This post is the next in an ongoing series.

The fear of metaphor is of ancient provenance. If you'll recall, we left off with Plato, via his gnomic persona, Socrates, banishing poets—the employers of metaphors—from the deliberations of democracy because they appealed not to truth and reason but incited the desires and passions of the populace. Of course, Socrates is quick to say the reasonable man should "fear[] for the safety of the city which is within him [and] be on guard against her seductions." Hardly a rational riposte.

Indeed, this is not the only time Plato relies on affective language to get his point across. His metaphor of the cave is one of the great talking points in the history of philosophy:
[Socrates] And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: --Behold! human beings living in a underground cave, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the cave; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.

[Glaucon] I see.

[Socrates] And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.

[Glaucon] You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.

[Socrates] Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?

[Glaucon] True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?

[Socrates] And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?

[Glaucon] Yes, he said.

[Socrates] And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?

[Glaucon] Very true.

[Socrates] And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?

[Glaucon] No question, he replied.

[Socrates] To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.

[Glaucon] That is certain.
Ironically, one of the most articulate men of his or any other generation—the man who banished the metaphoricists from The Republic—had himself to rely on a grand metaphor to express arguably his most seminal idea; to wit: that appearances are not reality and that the language we use to speak about those appearances is yet further removed from a true correspondence with reality.

Ideally, for Plato, political discourse should be grounded in reality and not simply appearances. But not all discourse is political, and, conceivably, not all metaphor is affective.

(to be continued)

14 November 2010

Not Quite Random Stuff

Stereolab: "Jenny Ondioline" from
Transient Random-Noise Bursts with Announcements

To stroke my vanity, today I've been trawling around the interwebs to find some links to confirm points I've been making of late.

The Democrats didn't lose because the Republicans and their programs are suddenly popular again. They lost to the extent they did because the Rs outbid them. Full Stop. To read more into the election than that is to miss the point. As Frank Rich points out:
"America’s ever-widening income inequality was not an inevitable by-product of the modern megacorporation, or of globalization, or of the advent of the new tech-driven economy, or of a growing education gap. (Yes, the very rich often have fancy degrees, but so do those in many income levels below them.) Inequality is instead the result of specific policies, including tax policies, championed by Washington Democrats and Republicans alike as they conducted a bidding war for high-rolling donors in election after election."
In ways big and small: Here we learn that money can indeed buy freedom. A Morgan Stanley employee, who manages over $1 billion in assets, managed to get out of a felony hit-and-run charge in Colorado after allegedly driving his Mercedes into a bicyclist and leaving the scene.

Think you've got an answer for dealing with the budget shortfall? The New York Times lets you play around with the moving parts and solve it here.

My own idea would be to set a firm corporate rate, cut out all deductions and shelters, and enforce it across the board without exception. Two out of every three U.S. corporations pay no taxes whatsoever, even after registering massive profits. What happens is our tax code allows them to keep two (and more) sets of books: one for investors and one for the tax man. Now, they're all complaining about tax and regulatory certainty as the reason for not reinvesting in labor—i.e., jobs. The tax code could be enormously streamlined and simplified by forcing large corporations to keep only one set of books, so that the profits they tout for purposes of drumming up investors are the same profits upon which they pay taxes. Bonuses and salaries and dividends and options and deferred income, etc., do not net out against profits. If a company can pay a bonus, etc., to its executive and key employees, it should be pay taxes on the amount of profit upon which it makes it distributions decision.

Remember we discussed microloans? The topic came up twice in today's The New York Times.

Here's a look at the new Bush propaganda vehicle that considers it as an unintended peek into the authoritarian mind, long a theme of this blog. Here's a key quote:
"Decision Points is a classic recipe for a benign dictatorship, a uniquely American form of dictatorship, to be sure -- from its rigid understanding of morality (good versus evil) to its distorted valuation of life (only American lives matter; Bush is not concerned about the loss of civilian life in the countries he attacked) -- that gives comfort to many in a time of economic and cultural stress.

The beauty of the Bush philosophy of governance is that it creates and accelerates those very conditions of stress (radical economic inequality promoted by tax cuts for the wealthy and concomitant cuts in public services for the less well-off) that then provide fertile ground for popular acceptance of measures intended to further worsen conditions for the subject class. An example would be to purposely inflate the housing bubble and then use the succeeding bailout to further enrich the wealthy elites at the cost of the average worker. Or to execute a reckless Medicare drug expansion plan, catering to pharmaceutical companies and knowing it would lead to insolvency, to set the stage for drastic future cuts in Medicare -- and other entitlements, while they're at it. The same principle applies in foreign policy, such as in retreating from Bill Clinton's tentative rapprochement with Iran and North Korea as Bush's first order of business, demonizing these countries as evil, and then setting in motion offensive strategies once those countries predictably react. The principle is evident in attacking and occupying Middle Eastern countries, then justifying the war on terror by pointing to the increased radicalization ensuing from the invasion."
I've been going on at length (see below) about the abject wrongness of the libertarian 'philosophy'. Here's the CATO Institute putting lipstick on that particular pig:
"The famous Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote a bestselling book in 1958 called The Affluent Society, in which he discussed the phenomenon of “private opulence and public squalor”—that is, a society in which privately owned resources were generally clean, efficient, well-maintained, and improving in quality while public spaces were dirty, overcrowded, and unsafe—and concluded, oddly enough, that we ought to move more resources into the public sector. Thousands of college students were assigned to read The Affluent Society, and Galbraith’s ideas played a major role in the vast expansion of government during the 1960s and 1970s.

But Galbraith and American politicians missed the real point of his observation. The more logical answer is that if privately owned resources are better maintained, then we should seek to expand private ownership."
What Galbraith saw as a problem, CATO wants to see scaled up. The world is simply too large and diverse for such a simplistic solution. This is a primary example of over-simplification, or pseudo-philosophy. There is no room for complexity. CATO and its libertarian brethren tend to believe that there is only one choice, and it is a stark one: either all property should be private property, or it should be all public. Naturally, CATO believes EVERYTHING should be privatized. The "ownership society" refuses to acknowledge the necessary value of public space, roads, utilities, services, education, weal, etc. A privatized society, as I've argued, tends to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of those who already have it: the plutocracy. Laws are created and enforced in favor of those who can afford to game the system. (See above)

Google lets you peek into The Affluent Society here.

Do you have any idea 'What the fuck has Obama done so far?' Check here. (BDR had this, too.)
By the same token, do you ever wonder 'What the fuck Sarah Palin has done so far?' Check here.

Scientific studies show that, based on stock market capitalization and dividends, at the current pace of research and development, global oil will run out 90 years before replacement technologies are ready.

On that score, here's a group you need to know about: the Earth Policy Institute. Wisdaughter has been reading Lester R. Brown's recent book this semester in college. It may have changed her life. The title: Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. It doesn't just whine about the problems or argue about whether global warming is real, it proffers serious, practical solutions. You can read some of what Brown has written here and here. Wisdaughter's promised not to sell it for beer money and let me read it when she's finished.

And here're some folks who've come with a key solution: cheap desalination of sea water, the most prolific resource on the planet.
"the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Field and Space Robotics Laboratory, which has developed and successfully tested a portable, solar-powered water desalination system that has the potential to save millions of lives the world over.

Under the guidance of Profs. Steven Dubowsky and Richard Wiesman, the group created a small, reverse-osmosis system that's capable of producing up to 80 gallons of clean water per day. A scaled-up version of the system could produce up to 1,000 gallons per day"
What happens when the galaxy farts.

Historians claim to have located the site of King Arthur's Round Table. Ahh, nostalgia for a Golden Age of noble men and great ladies. Romance. Stratification.

Here's some stuff that Christian culture likes.

Are you a hipster? Think you're cooler than everyone else because your tastes and intellect are superior? Pierre Bourdieu took a look at you and people like you in his book Distinction, a book under discussion in today's The New York Times Book Review section.

Here's the money quote:
"The attempt to analyze the hipster provokes such universal anxiety because it calls everyone’s bluff. And hipsters aren’t the only ones unnerved. Many of us try to justify our privileges by pretending that our superb tastes and intellect prove we deserve them, reflecting our inner superiority. Those below us economically, the reasoning goes, don’t appreciate what we do; similarly, they couldn’t fill our jobs, handle our wealth or survive our difficulties. Of course this is a terrible lie. And Bourdieu devoted his life to exposing it. Those who read him in effect become responsible to him — forced to admit a failure to examine our own lives, down to the seeming trivialities of clothes and distinction that, as Bourdieu revealed, also structure our world."

12 November 2010

re: Calling All Active Agents

The International Necronautical Society's 'Declaration on the Notion of "The Future"' appears briefly in the Nov/Dec 2010 issue of Believer magazine. [But see "Feeling the Future"] Though agnostic myself, I supply a soundtrack.

Then, of course, there's nostalgia for past futures, which, in certain ways, advances the ball:

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre..." [c'mon, you know it]

10 November 2010

Politics, Part (-isan) 2, Appendix

[Game Theory: I've Tried Subtlety]

Looks like someone's been paying attention, confirming my thesis that the Democrat's 2010 election loss really had nothing to do with their policies and their serious legislative successes in the last congress; it was all about the new sources of money Citizens United allowed into the process. Hey, when the rules change, you can gripe and moan, but you've still got to keep playing.
These guys want to make the process more open. Good luck with that!
Speaking of money in the process, Open Secrets is a pretty good place to keep an eye on that; it's been in my Links role for a long time.
Here's another breakdown showing that this was the most expensive mid-term election in history. And here's another.
Can you imagine spending over $140 million dollars of your own money (dynastic wealth)? And losing! Meg Whitman did.
Chief rasslin' mama spent around $50 million of her own smackeroos, too, and got pinned on a ten count. Tough break. Too bad the fix wasn't in! Can you imagine Vince McMahon preening around Capitol Hill on C-Span?
Karl Rove's American Crossroads and other shadow groups spent upwards of a quarter billion dollars on the election. Much of that was off-the-books, using anonymous donors who were able to make unlimited donations, bypassing the traditional party structure, and was used specifically to oppose and attack Democratic Party candidates.
Commenter Charles F. Oxtrot points us to a dialogue on the continuity of the Citizens United decision with the tradition of the Supreme Court's Constitutional jurisprudence on corporate rights. And he is not wrong. You may enjoy it here or here or here:

But it is more complicated than that. There are counterstreams and oblique strategies that can be employed on this issue, as there are on most issues. I'll reserve that discussion for a future set of posts, and I hope Mr. Oxtrot will join in. (Welcome! Hope you don't mind my re-posting your work.)
On another of my points, here's an anti-Libertarian Primer.

09 November 2010

Politics, Part (-isan) 2

(cont'd from previous posts)

In the previous two posts in this series, I've argued that the most significant political changes in the last election have to do less with the shift of power from the Democratic party to the Republican party in the House and Senate and more with: (a) a shift in the Constitutional balance of power from the Executive to the Legislative branch, and (b) the increased influence of private, corporate sources of money on the political process after the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision—an assertion, by the way, of Judicial branch power.

It is merely a historical accident that the Rs stands to benefit from both these trends at the present time. Given other circumstances, the Ds could just as easily capitalize on both changes. In fact, I would argue, if they don't organize to take advantage of both aspects of the current situation, they stand to lose even more of the power they managed to gain in the 2008 election come 2012.

The former trend (a), I argue, is, at base, a good thing, representing a shift away from what I felt to be the authoritarian tendencies of the Bush administration. The second trend (b), on the other hand, hides a decidedly more disturbing shift. Let me explain.

In a recent interview with Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC's "The Last Word," Congressman Ron Paul (father of Senator-elect Rand Paul—named, by the way, after the Congressman's favorite 'philosopher') made the following statements:
"Individuals have rights. You don't have rights because you belong to a group. Property rights are identical to personal liberty and social liberties."
"Property rights is liberty."
(This last statement by Rep. Paul is not reflected in the transcript but can be heard at minute 16:30 here.)

Ron Paul is the presiding spirit of the Tea Party and the Libertarian wing of the Republican party. Here he boils his philosophy down to the slogan level. It is an effective and persuasive formulation—at least for some. Freedom and liberty are the catchwords of the present-day right wing. And here they are defined exclusively in terms of property rights.

As an aside, when you hear a Libertarian, or a modern-day conservative, speak about liberty or freedom, know this: they are speaking about freedom from government. Not the freedom to pursue happiness or any such fuzzy, substantive concepts. It is strictly a "non-interference," "don't mess with my stuff" type of liberty.

On the Libertarian view, only individuals have rights. And there are no individual human rights which are not also property rights. And vice versa. So, for example, animals, the environment, and groups (women, non-property owners, labor, gays, slaves, African-Americans, immigrants, the poor, etc.) as such, have no rights other than in their own bodies—which, of course, can be alienated or expropriated in the free market. Animals do not even have a right to their own bodies; they cannot hold property. No one owns the environment, and, until someone does, it is fair game for exploitation as a matter of individual property rights and an unfettered market place. And group rights only derive from the rights of individuals therein. There is no such thing as 'social justice'.

The liberty you have is commensurate with the property you own; and the property you own is the fruit of your labor which is an extension of your body. This is the idealistic, idealized basis of the Libertarian philosophy. And it simply makes no sense in the real world.

What we've seen in recent years is a trend toward an amassing of wealth in fewer and fewer individuals and, more significantly, in larger and larger corporate entities.

It is axiomatic in the Libertarian view that those who hold more property have more personal and social liberties. Conversely, those who hold no private property have no personal and social liberties. A natural imbalance is bound to exacerbate over time as more and more rights and liberties accrue to the wealthier members of society by virtue of their power, and more and more rights and liberties (and thus private property) dissipate from the less well-off who are less able to defend them.

How, in the Libertarian society, do individuals gain more liberty? They band their properties together and purchase more property rights via the form of a corporate entity. The sole purpose of a corporation is to make a profit for its owners, i.e., to increase their contractually-limited collective rights and liberties. The corporate vehicle provides them with, for example, limited liability from their collective wrong-doing. It absolves them, under the guise of bankruptcy and reorganization, from paying their outstanding debts. And as a side matter, practically speaking, corporate entities are better able to assert and defend their rights and liberties in the judicial system by virtue of their access to the necessary capital it takes to pay the sort of extensive legal bills it takes to obtain the results they desire.

The Libertarian watchword is small government, and this has become the mantra of much of the new House majority (how genuine an expression of their underlying goals it is is a question for another post). The aim is less regulation of corporate profit-making, i.e., more corporate liberty and, thus, the concentration of more property in corporate hands. That is to say, the desired result is that these corporate persons may exercise more and more of these rights (i.e., accumulate more property) without interference from the government—executive, judicial, and legislative. That means without the necessary checks on their ability to assert their rights ad lib against those who have less property (and, thus, less liberty and less rights) AND against the public good.

The Libertarian society has no room for nor a concept of the public good. Thus, everything from public streets and roads to public parks and natural resources and air space to the military, police, and fires department is subject to expropriation from the public sphere and, indeed, should be privatized. I've sketched one way in which this particular scenario might play out here.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that a corporation is considered a 'person' under the U.S. Constitution; that, for First Amendment 'free speech' purposes, money is speech; and that corporations may contribute unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns. This is a disturbing trend, one that the Libertarian ideology—despite its homely, individualistic, idealized self-image—merely serves to perpetuate.

For this reason, Libertarianism, though it claims to be grounded in individual property rights, cannot and should not be differentiated from corporatism.

This, then, represents the third trend in the American political landscape we've seen coming to a head in this latest election: the radical corporatist shift of the government, supercharged in unprecedented fashion by the influx of corporate money into political campaigns resulting from the second trend noted above.

05 November 2010

Politics, Part (-isan) 1

In my previous post, I looked at Tuesday's election in structural governmental, or Constitutional terms, concluding: the most significant, and long-lasting, power shift tokened by this election was not the change of party majority in the House of Representatives, it was the re-ascendance of the Legislative branch of government after eight years of the imperious, if not imperial, Executive under the Bush/Cheney administration. I've still seen no one who grasps this very important LIBERAL principle.

This may mean added oversight and even, if the new House Republican majority gets too full of themselves, impeachment. That's a political fight. And the R's are much better at it than the D's who could not muster the courage to challenge that mighty 'War President' whose abuses of power and potential war crimes and crimes against humanity, inter alia, drove his popularity down into the low to mid twenty percent range by the end of his term. That doesn't mean that such a structural shift isn't a good one. It is good for democracy. Presidents should not be allowed to rule by fiat.

Today, I want to look at why the Democratic Party failed so spectacularly Tuesday. After his party gained majority status in 2006, President Obama swept to power in 2008 against a preposterous opposition (Palin/McCain). The ground for this was laid by the DNC's and, specifically, Howard Dean's 50-state strategy. They ran a consistent campaign and put up serious candidates practically everywhere; they energized the base and the youth vote and raised funds dollar-by-dollar from sources previously untapped—the internet, small contributors, etc. Once Obama became the titular head of the party, Dean was ousted and the campaign strategy changed. As a result, the D's were out-gunned by money, message, and enthusiasm in this last election.

The R's tapped unprecedented sources of money in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. This is where their "tidal wave" lay. It had nothing to do with their policies. In fact, their two major policy principles (besides, of course, ousting President Obama in 2012) contain a contradiction so glaring that even the most obtuse media pundit should be able to drive a high-speed rail line through it. Principle 1: Extend the Bush tax cuts permanently; Principle 2: Balance the budget/cut the deficit. Can you spot the inconsistency?

The R's won because they were better organized and raised way more money. It's as simple as that. They had so much money, they nearly split wide open trying to get their hands on it—an issue I plan to address in my next post on this topic. And if the D's plan on retaining the Senate and the Presidency in 2012, they better start last year raising enough money so they can start some serious fundraising, getting their precinct leadership in order, recruiting good candidates EVERYWHERE, crafting their message, preparing their legislative strategy to exploit the contradictions and conflicts in their opponent's ranks, etc.

This, of course, is just the politics of it. More importantly, of course, for the good of the country, President Obama needs to focus on creating jobs and improving the economy, and he needs to get his party behind him. As the party of good governance, I think the D's can do it. But they shouldn't expect the electorate to reward them merely for a job well done; the Republicans are much better campaigners. The Democrats, if they want to keep their jobs, need to demonstrate how much they really want them. They need to bring the passion.

04 November 2010

Soundtrack to the Previous Post

We are all, today, wearing pointy-headed newspaper hats.


Bonus track:

03 November 2010


As you may or may not know, the United States had a mid-term political election yesterday. The office of the presidency was not up for grabs, but the entire House of Representatives, one-third of the Senate, numerous state governorships, and state legislatures were. It was an exercise in our particular form of democratic government in the normal course of things. And that's a good thing.

Today, there's a lot of hue and cry about the outcome and what it means for the future of this country and its two mainstream political parties. The Republican Party gained control of the House of Representatives. The Democratic Party retained control of the Senate—just barely.

None of the post-mortem coverage I've seen (and I'm open to correction), however, seems to grasp the full measure of the change the last two years has wrought on our political system.

Yes, there have been accomplishments by the Obama administration and the Democratic majority in Congress. And they are of debatable merit. Yes, the Republicans have reorganized as the minority party-in-opposition and seemed to have found new life. But analyzing yesterday's election results in terms of its effects on the two political parties misses the point.

As practically everyone of consequence acknowledges, this country—and quite possibly the world as a whole—narrowly missed slipping into another Great Depression as the presidency of George W. Bush stumbled to the finish line of its eight year incumbency. President Obama's supporters like to give him credit for averting this catastrophe, and there is some credibility to this argument. But it is a difficult thing to sell to the American electorate and clearly did not hold sway yesterday.

What goes unacknowledged by virtually everyone is the other crisis we averted in the wake of the Bush presidency: namely, the rise of the imperial presidency.

Let's start with some background. President Bush and, even more so, Vice President Cheney attempted to use the disastrous terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to expand the powers of the Executive to a practically unheard-of degree. They shoved the so-called PATRIOT Act through a rubber-stamp Republican majority Congress in the dead of night. They dictated legislation to their shills on any number of other occasions, and the Democratic minority did not act as a party-in-opposition. They were cowed into submission by calls of treason and cowardice and most likely blackmail by the minions of a self-declared 'War President'. They were bullied and conned into ceding to the Bush administration exclusive power to determine if this country should invade a bystander country. The Bush administration adventured into armed conflict by fiat. It spent billions of dollars on PR (Hill & Knowlton, anyone?) to trumpet its policies and bash its opponents—something to which, I might add, the Obama administration seems allergic. It populated the judicial benches with cronies and allies who adhered to its vision of virtually limitless executive power. It submitted deceptive budgets designed to foster its agenda and make it appear to be fiscally sound—its two 'wars' were, for example, specifically kept off-budget. The Bush administration co-opted legitimate journalists and pundits and used FoxNews as its communications arm, and it used threats of removing access to information from those in the mainstream press it couldn't co-opt if they criticized the president. It engaged in illegal warfare, torture, and further crimes against humanity and world order. It engaged in character assassination and political destruction of those who dared call attention to its lies (Valerie Plame, anyone?) and fraud.

This brief summary only begins to touch on the eight-year effort by President Bush to consolidate power in the Executive Branch of the U.S. government. The first six years of the Bush presidency, in particular, was characterized by the machinations of a shrewd political organization whose every move was calculated to enhance its party's dominance. The current president, by contrast, has not rammed its own legislative initiatives down the throat of Congress. Virtually all of the initiative has been ceded to Congress. And this is as it should be.

Our Constitution envisions three balanced branches of government. During the Republican Bush years, the balance tipped heavily in favor of the Executive branch. We have not seen such an imbalance since the times of FDR or Lincoln, legitimate war presidents. President Obama, by all indications, seems to working to restore the correct balance. It is a slow process. And a thankless one. It cannot help but make him seem weak. It does not "excite the base."

Yet, this is why this mid-term election is encouraging. Sure, the party I favor lost some seats. But that power shift is de minimis compared to the real shift in power we are seeing (or not seeing, as the case may be) between the Executive and the Legislative branches. Let the issues play out in Congress. That's the way our system is supposed to work. That's where we're supposed to fight it out. That's where true bottom-up change can come.

I think too many on the left want to counterbalance the strongman Bush with a strongman of their own. I believe that is wrongheaded. The stronger the presidency, the greater the tendency toward authoritarianism. Being a liberal, historically, means opposing a strong executive—in whatever form it takes: monarchy, feudalism, heriditary nobility, fascism, dictatorship, totalitarianism, religious establishmentarianism, etc. So, call me a liberal; just make sure you know what you're talking about when you do.

And yes, on that score, yesterday's election results were not all that bad. Historic turnout for mid-term elections just indicates that we are beginning to see a resurgence in the Legislative branch of government. And that means it's time to roll up your sleeves and get your representatives to do their job, i.e., representing your interests.